Monthly Archives: August 2012

You Are Now Entering the Event Site: the teeming realms of M. John Harrison’s Empty Space

You can’t hope to control things. Learn to love the vertigo of experience instead.

(M. John Harrison What might it be like to live in Viriconium Fantastic Metropolis 2001)


M. John Harrison’s career to date has been an exercise in destruction – of the commonly accepted role of SF as an escapist literature, of the myth that SF cannot be ‘proper’ literature in any case, and of the comfortable assumptions and preconceptions of the genre’s core fan base about how SF should be and what it should set out to do.

When Harrison published the first of his trilogy of novels about the imaginary city of Viriconium, The Pastel City, in 1971, he was setting out to overturn what he saw as the ‘literalisation’ of the fantasy genre. Harrison’s Viriconium sequence highlighted the creative bankruptcy of commercial series fantasy by pointing up its over-reliance on overused tropes and hyper-detailed worldbuilding and then undermining it completely: In Viriconium, the third book in the Viriconium series, eventually relegates the eponymous city to the realm of the non-existent. Ironically, by metaphorically destroying his creation in such a way, Harrison returned to the fantasy genre much of the possibility it has always contained for magic, for metaphor, for poetry and for intellectual gamesmanship.

In 2002 with his Clarke Award-nominated novel Light, M. John Harrison played a similar opening gambit against the popular SF sub-genre of space opera, traditionally the literature of gung-ho space exploration, intergalactic conquest and super-technological advance. In his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, Harrison has created a space opera that ridicules the notion of space opera, an anti-immersive fantasy, as he himself puts it, disguised as an immersive fantasy. The trilogy reaches its climax this July with the publication of the third book in the series, Empty Space,

In the first book, Light, Harrison introduces us to Michael Kearney, a theoretical physicist whose work will eventually lead to the invention of a version of faster-than-light space travel called the dynaflow, thus bringing about, by the twenty-third century, a vast space-diaspora of humankind. Kearney is also a serial killer who believes that he is being pursued by an existential monster called the Shrander. Alternating narrative strands involve us in the adventures of Seria Mau Genlicher, an ultra-rarefied breed of post-human space pilot known as a K-captain, and of Ed Chianese, a burned-out rocket jockey who still dreams of penetrating the ultimate no-go zone, the logic-defying and shape-shifting web of temporal effect and hyper-physics known as the Kefahuchi Tract.

In the 2007 follow-up to Light, the Clarke Award-winning Nova Swing, a section of the Kefahuchi Tract has fallen to earth in the far-distant extraterrestrial city of Saudade. The novel follows the attempts of Aschemann, a police detective, to investigate the activities of Vic Serotonin, an unpredictable loner who earns his living taking foolhardy ‘tourists’ into the Event Site, a career fraught with risks so perverse they cannot be predicted in advance.

In Empty Space, Aschemann’s one-time sidekick, known to us only as the Assistant, begins an investigation of her own, while Michael Kearney’s ex-wife Anna sets out on a quest to return an item of lost property to Kearney’s missing research partner Brian Tate. Ed Chianese returns, vastly changed, from his own suicide mission, while his old sparring partner Liv Hula is charged with the delivery of some highly dangerous cargo to regions unknown.

There’s plenty of what looks like space opera in the Empty Space books: there are exploding planets, after all, faster-than-light spaceships, genetic engineers, alien artefacts, obsessed and obsessive men of science. But this is Harrison we’re reading here, not Heinlein, and it’s crucial to realise that the action sequences and futuristic hardware are just the shadows thrown by the true narrative, a kind of armature of space opera on to which Harrison grafts the story he is actually intent on telling. The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy is principally the story of Anna and Michael Kearney, real-time human beings struggling to find some frame of reference within a world that is changing too fast to remain coherently explicable.

Far more than they will ever be space opera, the three Empty Space books form a three-part drama of adaptive alienation.

Harrison has often castigated readers as well as writers for wanting to ‘tame’ fantasy and science fiction by imposing upon it a system of the familiar. By demanding that it adhere to certain rules, such readers are restricting the imaginative possibilities of speculative fiction, clipping its wings, transforming a phoenix into something more closely resembling a battery chicken. By demanding that SF remain within the cordon of scientific veracity, the reader commits an act of imaginative vandalism. Harrison’s K-ships are constructed with words, not steel, not super-strength Perspex housings or semi-organic engine components; they were never meant to travel literally through space, but metaphorically, through the mind of the reader. From there, Harrison argues, they can go anywhere. In language that is a deft homage to the ghost of Raymond Chandler doffing his hat to T. S. Eliot, spliced together with the commentary from a twenty-second century video game and some of the more metaphysical lyrics of Nick Cave, Harrison renders the impossible possible, and not just possible but seemingly as the normal stuff of everyday life.

This philosophy drove them, in the late decades of the 21st Century, to launch themselves blind into dynaflow space, with no idea how to navigate it, in craft made of curiously unsophisticated materials. They had no idea where the first jump would take them. By the second jump, they had no idea where they started from. By the third they had no idea what “where” meant.

It was a hard problem, but not insoluble. Within a decade or two they had used the Tet-Kearno equations to derive an eleven-dimensional algorithm from the hunting behaviour of the shark. The Galaxy was theirs. Everywhere they went they found archeological traces of the people who had solved the problem before them – AIs, lobster gods, lizard men from deep time. They learned new science on a steep, fulfilling curve. Everything was waiting to be handled, smelled, eaten. You threw the rind over your shoulder. The eerie beauty of it was that you could be on to the next thing before the previous thing had lost its shine. (Empty Space p230)

There is an imagic clarity to Harrison’s SF that moves far beyond scientific logic, a voice that tells us that if we are able to imagine a thing it has in a sense already happened. We read and – like the gene-spliced, heavily tailored fighters of Preter Coeur – we simply become. The art of the Empty Space trilogy as a whole lies not in predicting futures so much as in practically defining the art of the imaginatively possible.

But what of Empty Space the novel? If the main play of Light had to do with discovering the links between the novel’s seemingly disparate characters and the worlds they inhabit, and the theme of Nova Swing is how those characters might escape the magnetic pull of the life they previously imagined for themselves, the recurring motif in Empty Space is the failure to connect. Aschemann’s unnamed Assistant is unable to ascertain not only the true nature of a possible homicide but the extent to which she still remains a human being. Liv Hula struggles to come to terms with the fact that the part of her life that defined her is most likely over. Most of all, Anna Waterman is unable to connect the life she has created for herself in the wake of Michael Kearney’s death – a new husband, a daughter, a lifestyle that, in the asset-stripped economy of the twenty-thirties, borders on the affluent – with the disturbing emotions and unanswered questions that are a recurring hangover from her life before. It is no surprise to discover that it is not the far future strands of the narrative that drive this novel, but Anna’s struggle to square what she knows with what she feels – both about herself and about the world that insists on constantly reinventing itself around her.

In the end, if you have a certain sort of mind, you can’t even separate the mundane from the bizarre. That’s why you find yourself face down in the bathroom at eighteen years old, studying the reflection of your own pores in the shiny black floor tiles. And if afterwards you choose a dysfunctional person to be your rescuer, how is that your fault ? Who could know? More importantly, the past can’t be mended – only left behind. People, the dead included, always demand too much. She was sick of being on someone else’s errand. “I did my best,” she thought, “and now I can’t be bothered any more.” (p258)

Harrison subtitled his novel A Haunting, and in truth Empty Space concerns itself with many hauntings, most of all with how the future is haunted by the past.  What if the marvels and wonders inside the Kefahuchi Tract turn out mostly to be the contents of Anna Kearney’s summerhouse, the discarded detritus of a past that she can never quite bring herself to throw away? When expanded to fill the world, these shards of forgotten reality become secrets and marvels. Memory, as much as matter, can never be destroyed, it simply reasserts itself in an alternative form. In the final third of the book the tone darkens as the personal wars being waged in the minds of the novel’s characters threaten to spill out and engulf the universe. In his baroque descriptions of impossible intergalactic atrocities, what Harrison brings to mind most of all is the state of suspicion, hostility and constant war-readiness that is the everyday reality of our own twenty-first-century political culture, and most of all our own dangerous inured indifference towards it.

Then war was everywhere and it was your war, to be accessed however it fitted best into your busy schedule. Seven second segments to three minute documentaries. Focussed debate, embedded media. 24-hour live mano a mano between mixed assets in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, or a catch-up of the entire campaign – including interactive mapping of EMC’s feint towards Beta Carinae – from day one. In-depth views included: How They Took the Pulsed-Gamma War to Cassiotone 9; The Ever-Present Threat of Gravity Wave Lasing; and We Ask You How You Would Have Done It Differently! People loved it. The simulacrum of war forced them fully into the present, where they could hone their life anxieties and interpret them as excitement. Meanwhile, under cover of the coverage, the real war crept across the Halo until it threatened Panamax IV. (p237)

Readers of trad SF coming to the third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy hoping for a sense of closure might find themselves disappointed, but such a reaction would be both limited and limiting, and I would argue that M. John Harrison wrote Empty Space as a proof against the whole idea of closure. These are books that can be read in any order, singularly or together; no matter how you choose to enjoy them, their mystery will remain insoluble. This is not to say that there are no linear narratives at work here, because there are, and they are entrancing and mysterious and compulsively readable. But they are still not the main point of Harrison’s story. The point, as Ballard might have said, is not outer space but inner space, not the feats of ordinary heroes, but the paradoxes, treacheries and wonders of extraordinary humanity, what goes on in our own heads when confronted with the existential horror and glory of being alive.

But the other side of the fence things only deteriorated. Seaward in the fog, you could feel distance growing in everything. From Lizard Sex to The Metropole, the shutters were up all along the strip. The old fashioned signs banged in the wind; rust ran down from blisters in the paintwork. Outside the joint they called 90-Proof & Boys, the air tasted of salt. Ivy Mike’s lay silent and unoccupied. The circus wasn’t in town, and it was coming on to rain. (p192)

This is Harrison’s description of the sunset strip at New Venusport, but it might equally well be Blackpool in the off season, and it is Harrison’s ability to invest our accustomed reality with the nacreous, rarefied light of the future fantastic that is one of his greatest gifts to us as a novelist. In the end, no matter how far we dream of travelling, we are stuck with what we’ve got. What Harrison seems to be telling us is that what we’ve got is quite enough to be going along with.

(This review was first published in Starburst #379/iPad edition July 2012)

A Game of Dice

“Later, after closing the curtains, I turn the lights back on and study one by one the various elements of my situation. I’m losing the war. I’ve almost certainly lost my job. Every day that goes by distances me a little further from an improbable reconciliation with Ingeborg. As he lies dying, Frau Else’s husband amuses himself by hating me, assaulting me with all the subtlety of the terminally ill. Conrad has sent me only a little money. The article that I originally planned to write at the Del Mar is set aside and forgotten….. Not an encouraging panorama.”

(Roberto Bolano The Third Reich p236 trans. Natasha Wimmer)

I love Roberto Bolano. Since first discovering him a couple of years ago I’ve come to love him more and more. He sits up there alongside Vladimir Nabokov in my personal pantheon of genius, and with one crucial difference: Nabokov’s work is a distant summit of perfection that can be worshipped and admired but never approached, whereas with Bolano you can kind of imagine – almost – how his effortlessly beautiful novels came to be made.

No one seems to know quite what to make of The Third Reich. Published posthumously only last year, it was actually completed in the late eighties, and was one of Bolano’s first attempts at writing a novel. For Adam Mars Jones in The Guardian, this seems to have been the signal to fixate on what he perceives as the book’s imperfections – being written without a foreknowledge of 9/11, for example, or its quaintly old school gamers with their boards and dice. I was baffled by Mars Jones’s review, which seemed determined to relegate The Third Reich to the category of literary prentice pieces, interesting failures. He tends towards the belief that it is only Bolano’s untimely death that grants the work its scant validity. I would argue the opposite, that it is Bolano’s tragically early departure from the literary scene that has given critics such as Mars Jones a false perspective. Suddenly there are all these ‘new’ Bolano works flooding the market – they can’t all be good, surely? This early stuff – interesting for the scholar perhaps, but not for the general reader. Stick to The Savage Detectives or By Night in Chile…..

I think that if The Third Reich were to appear in print tomorrow, by a new young writer (Bolano was just thirty-five when he wrote this, remember) it would be hailed as extraordinary, whether it had mobile phones in it or not.

It’s an odd, odd story. Udo Berger, a young German and champion gamer, is on holiday with his girlfriend Ingeborg on the Spanish coast. The hotel they’re staying at is the same hotel Udo used to come to as a teenager with his family a decade before. It hasn’t changed much – and neither has his adolescent crush on the hotel’s owner-manager, Frau Else. Udo is planning to use his time away to complete an article he’s supposed to be writing for one of the gaming magazines. Instead he finds himself getting sidetracked by the tempestuous to-ings and fro-ings of another young German couple, Charly and Hanna, diverted by the weird indolence of the resort itself and increasingly obsessed by his relationship with El Quemado, a disfigured beach hermit who turns out to be his gaming nemesis.

The story is told as a series of diary entries, and it’s this discursive, naturalistic style – so typical of Bolano in general as well as the diary format in particular – that is part of what makes this novel so compelling. The story emerges for us as it emerges for Udo – inextricably interwoven with the greater and lesser minutiae of each passing day. There is no sense that this novel is plot-driven – but as Udo himself is a driven character, we are driven, as we follow his thoughts, to share his obsessions.

Bolano was a poet long before he was a novelist – indeed, he always viewed his career as a prose writer as a necessary second best – and this is evident in everything he writes. There is an unhesitating appreciation of the weight of words, their relative values, their positioning within a sentence. He will write of love and philosophy with as much commitment as he will write of a walk to the chip shop – and vice versa – but in Bolano’s hands it is hard to notice where the merely descriptive begins and the reflective leaves off.

With Bolano, it is all about voice. His is the voice of art, with just enough of artifice to hold it in place. The Third Reich should become a bible for any writer.

Last week sometime I overheard M. John Harrison talking online about the difference between what he calls ‘desk fiction’ and ‘notebook fiction.’ ‘Desk fiction,’ he says, ‘is more plotted and manufactured. Found material is used but doesn’t directly generate the story.’ He cites his 2002 novel Light as his best ‘desk job.’

As his best notebook job he cites Climbers, and in his blog he describes the process of writing notebook fiction thus:

I made rules which enabled me to play a game about generating the story from the found material, rather than using the material as dressing for an already-made-up story. The idea is that your armature for any given story is its emotional and/or “philosophical” theme, & that theme is expressed initially as an arrangement of the found material. After a lot more operations, the found material ends up as a thematically driven narrative.

I got that idea from the early cinema documentarists, who never used a script but shot millions of feet of footage around their subject then spent two years editing the story into view. They would allow the observed material to tell them what it wanted to say. Flaherty used the image of an Inuit carver, whose greatest effort goes into seeing the subject already implied by the shape of the piece of bone he is going to carve.

I found all this both remarkably inspiring and a penetratingly useful way of thinking about fiction – both what it’s like when you read it and what kind of fiction you want to be writing. Reading this entry by MJH and thinking about it over the past few days it seems to me that the category of ‘desk fiction’ or ‘notebook fiction’ could be gainfully applied to most any novel, whether it was actually created from found material or not, that it’s a matter of feel, as well as method.

I don’t know how The Third Reich was written, but it has the feel of the ultimate notebook novel scratched into every page.

I don’t know how Nabokov’s Ada was written either (on index cards though, probably) but it has the feel of the most glorious desk job. Ever.

If I’m applying this to myself at all, I reckon I’ve been pretty much a full-time desk writer up until now. I aspire to notebook fiction though, I ache for it. And Roberto Bolano’s going to teach me how to write it…..

Thought for the day

“So the call to arms is a twofold one: firstly, let’s have a look around, it’s a big world, and if bits of it move you, don’t be afraid to write about it. Second, be bold, and proud of who are and where you come from. Express your culture, your concerns and those of your community and the voices within it, however movable a feast that is. Because if you don’t, the chances are that it might not be around in the future. So do what Trocchi and MacDiarmid would do: don’t get obsessed with histories and legacies or markets and ‘rules’, just hit those keys and see what happens.”

(Irvine Welsh, speaking on literature and national identity at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference.)

So where am I now?

Chris delivered The Adjacent to Simon Spanton of Gollancz at the end of last week and I’m really missing it! For the past two years I’ve had the privilege of living with this novel, unfolding in the background of everything I do. When you’re close to someone and you love their work, you can’t help but take that work into yourself, acclimatise yourself to it so that it comes to feel like a natural part of your working environment. Now it feels like a favourite music I’ve had playing on repeat has been switched off.

But the book is magnificent. Last week was my first opportunity to read it from beginning to end, chronologically and in order. It’s an extraordinary work, perhaps Chris’s most wide ranging and powerful to date. And as Blackadder might have said, that’s up against some pretty stiff competition. The cumulative impact of the text as it reveals itself is immense. This book will, I feel, surprise and astound anyone who comes into contact with it.

So last week was a pretty big deal.

Hopefully this one will be also as work on my own novel continues and intensifies. I’m now, let’s see, almost 46,000 words into the second draft, well into Part Two and feeling good about it. Writing this book has been rather like trying to get comfortable in bed – not easy when your mind is in constant overdrive and the slightest sound can wake you but when you finally manage it you know it feels right. I now feel I know this book. Even if never entirely in control, I feel comfortable with what I’m doing. Perhaps this is why, after almost a year working on it, the book finally has a title.

The novel is called What Happened to Maree.

I read Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and felt disappointed. The premise appealed to me so much, but in the event what I found was a slight book, rather akin – in effect if not in subject matter – to last year’s Booker winner, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. At a sentence level, Swimming Home was finely worked and well above average. But in spite of everything Tom McCarthy says in his intro I found both the subject matter and its treatment bafflingly conventional, and the sketchy characterisation uncomfortably incapable of supporting the weight of significance placed upon it. Which was all a bit of a shame. The last chapter was the best.

I am now reading Roberto Bolano’s The Third Reich, and loving every word of it. That man is my idol. I so need to watch and learn….

OMG 10K!

I’ve just been watching Mo Farah’s beautiful, beautiful win in the Olympic men’s 10,000 metres. What a race. I could hardly bear to watch those two final laps. I didn’t see how he could possibly hang on to it. Totally awesome.

And in spite of all Olypmic distractions (of which there have been many) I have been working well on the book this week. I’m almost at the end of the second draft of Part One. Things feel like they’re sliding into place – finally, suddenly – and I begin to catch glimpses of what I’ve been struggling to catch hold of this whole past year.

Listening to: Gillian Welch (again).

Currently reading: Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor. What an unnervingly strange book that is. I haven’t read Lessing for some years, but it’s hugely instructive to be doing so at the moment. I like the way her thought processes seem to formulate themselves even as she writes. I admire her total disregard for the conventions surrounding how a good novel should behave and be constructed. Lessing’s work seems almost to construct itself as it goes along. It becomes what it needs to be. I would aspire to such courage. Also, it’s fascinating to note how central SF and SFnal ideas have been to Lessing’s career. She’s not afraid to own this, either.

I like.